★★★★☆ Sterling vocals help audience acquire three different tastes.

City Hall, Brisbane
April 12, 2016

Ever since the revelatory pioneering work of Alfred Deller, more than 50 years ago, the male falsetto has often been considered an acquired taste. However, as the fine concert, The Art of the Countertenor, revealed to its audience (in the neo-Renaissance auditorium of the City Hall during the Brisbane Baroque Festival), like, wine, this style of singing is not a single ‘taste’ at all. Part of the thrill of the occasion was relishing three distinct voices and three decidedly different performers, all of whom had been principals in Handel’s Agrippina, the key-stone event of the Festival. 

The repertoire was composed for castrati and a further part of the delight of the concert was the reminder of what celebrities they were in their era and just why: this exhilarating music had been written for both audiences and composers to revel in the combination of high technical accomplishment and unique expressive powers of those singers. Of course, for anatomical reasons, modern falsettists cannot reveal the totality of that formidable artistic accomplishment, but these three singers came gratifyingly close to doing so. 

Russell Harcourt

The Australian, Russell Harcourt is not really an ‘alto’ as this voice-type is habitually considered: he is more correctly a ‘soprano’ and an impressive one, at that. His upper register is entirely secure and his coloratura is clean and agile, his trill is accomplished. He sang Vivaldi, Hasse and Porpora. Porpora’s aria, Alto Giove, is a remarkable piece: its opening is almost a cadenza in itself and then it moves into a measured eloquence which Harcourt delivered with an apt seriousness. My only reservation about his singing, really, was his final cadential flourish in Hasse’s Spesso tra vaghe rose: he did this on more than the single breath which was mandated by JJ Quantz, the contemporary authority on the musical style of his time. Otherwise, Harcourt was assured in the contrasts between the quasi-improvisation and assertively confident facets of this piece. 

Carlo Vistoli

I was delighted that two of JA Hasse’s arias were on this programme: he is the great neglected composer of the baroque era. JS Bach admired his music and in 1731 travelled to Dresden to hear Cleofide, Hasse’s first opera after his appointment to the Dresden court. Only the year before, Artaserse had been premièred in Venice and its big hit, Pallido il sole – indeed, arguably, the most famous aria of the 18th century – was sung in this Brisbane concert by Carlo Vistoli. I’d have preferred it at a faster tempo: granted it is, I think, marked, “Andante” (or even “Andante assai”) which is usually translated as “at a walking pace” but can also simply mean, “fluently” (which this passionate music certainly requires) and, as Grove’s Dictionary advises, at that time its use “was often as an indication of performance manner rather than as tempo”.

Vistoli’s approach unquestionably emphasised the sinuous beauty of the music, but, given the impassioned and even forceful” performance of his other contributions to this programme, I nevertheless found something missing here. That other music – a long and eloquent cantata by Vivaldi (Cessate, omai cessati; RV 684) – and A dispetto from Handel’s Tamerlano stamped him to me as the most convincing and compelling dramatic singer of the three men. Although his repertoire took him, at times, uncomfortably into his baritonal register, one cannot (so to speak) “take one’s ears off him” when he sings (something that was also the case in the current performances of Agrippina). I’d strongly suspect that Vistoli will become a very famous singer, indeed.

Owen Willetts

The third of this musical troika was the Briton, Owen Willets. His is a rich, authentic alto voice (indeed, almost a ‘contralto’) and he is, of them all, the one whom I would categorise as a “recital singer”. All three of his choices were by Handel, but he was at his best in slow music of regret and was then very fine. He showed, though, the truth of the old observation that our earliest musical experiences are the most potent and enduring: he is, plainly, a product of the English cathedral tradition. His fullest tone can sound ‘hooty’ (even risking seeming pompous), but its evenness and the sheer good taste of his decorative singing are fine compensations.

The variety of the evening came with two fine performances of violin concertos by Vivaldi (RV121 in D and RV157 in G Minor) in which Stephen Freeman (who elsewhere led the orchestra) was a graceful and lucid soloist. He was impeccably in tune, he never over-interpreted the unpretentious (but intelligently-structured) music and was everywhere graceful. Here, as throughout the concert, Erin Helyard was alert and spirited in his direction of the small ensemble from the Orchestra of the Antipodes (which is “in residence” for this festival). Helyard is an eminent scholar and a superb executant in this repertoire: we are blessed to have him back in Australia.